Newsmakers '09: Stealing the show

Harper's U-Turn

Since political columnists are always right, Stephen Harper has only a few weeks left to resign from politics in disgrace before the New Year. Better hurry!

Or perhaps you don’t recall the spate of commentary at the beginning of the year to the effect that Harper, having survived the Great Weird Coalition Crisis of Late 2008 only by strong-arming Governor General Michaëlle Jean into proroguing Parliament, was so badly wounded he would soon be forced to skulk away onto the retired-politico rubber-chicken circuit. One presumes the authors of those predictions, who perch at certain Toronto newspapers, will not hasten to remind us as Harper heads into 2010 in uncontested control of his party, with the Liberals struggling to get off the ropes and tantalizing hints of Conservative growth in Quebec and in a few carefully selected ethnic communities.

Quit? Harper has a better shot than ever at the parliamentary majority that has eluded him until now. So how’d that happen?
Back in January the predictions of a hasty Harper retirement didn’t seem particularly outlandish. Harper was indeed disoriented. The 2008 election gave him a strengthened minority and left Liberal Stéphane Dion’s leadership mortally compromised. Somehow Harper managed to provoke an opposition united front that threatened to congeal into a coalition government. He survived that threat only to do what he has always done when he is bitter: lash out, this time against Brian Mulroney, whose Conservative party membership status became the focus of a brief, bizarre controversy sparked by Harper’s PMO spokesdrones.

What saved him, Harper tells his entourage now, was the economic recession and the climate of uncertainty it provoked. Canadians were worried, and to the amazement of Liberals still congratulating themselves for beating the budget deficit more than a decade ago, much of Canadians’ confidence on matters of economic management has transferred to the Conservatives. Michael Ignatieff, the new Liberal leader, announced he would force Harper to report periodically on the status of the multi-billion-dollar coast-to-coast cash dump known as the “fiscal stimulus”; Harper, barely able to believe his luck, cheerfully obliged. At times the Conservative “information” campaign has been lurid to the point of being ethically questionable, with Conservative MPs handing out jumbo cheques, some bearing the Conservative party logo, to municipal dignitaries.

The Conservatives are amused by any ethical debates their behaviour has sparked. They are satisfied with the results. From June to September, according to a senior Conservative source, public awareness that the Conservatives have “an action plan” for dealing with the global economic crisis vaulted from 20 to 49 per cent. One voter in two is an unusually high level of public awareness for anything any government does. And the Conservatives have only the Liberals to thank for making them launch the public awareness program.

“What’s worth remembering is that most of our progress this year has been through self-inflicted Liberal damage,” the senior Conservative said. “There haven’t been a lot of Stephen Harper evil-genius traps, except maybe the gun registry”—a parliamentary vote on a Conservative private member’s bill to eliminate the registry for rifles and shotguns, which split the Liberals and the New Democratic Party caucus—“and that was more about splitting the NDP than boxing the Liberals in.”

Perhaps the best news came in mid-autumn, when the Conservatives picked up a seat in Rivière-du-Loup, a Bloc stronghold in eastern Quebec, confounding the impression that Harper’s modest breakthrough in Quebec in 2006 might be the high-water mark of his success there.

What we have learned about Harper in the past year should be dispiriting to the Liberals. Each time an election has seemed likely, support for the Conservatives has risen. Economic uncertainty helps the incumbents, not their rivals. And there are many more corners of the country where the Liberals are uncompetitive than where the Conservatives are. By autumn, Harper was making guest appearances on Ottawa concert stages and Bollywood dance shows. He looks set to keep surprising Canadians for a while yet.

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